African Festival Chicago 2005

16th Annual African Festival of the Arts

by D. Kevin McNeir

At the recent 16th Annual African Festival of the Arts, a yearly celebration that illuminates the African influence on the world, musical traditions extending from jazz to blues, Latin rhythm to gospel and hip hop to Neo-Soul were all represented in a unique four-day experience.

If you’ve never been to this gathering that celebrates the contributions of musicians and artists who represent the African Diaspora experience, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. But if you can imagine the aroma of pungent incense drifting in the air, if you can visualize the panorama of colors that are characteristic of the garb from the African continent and can hear the whispering wind as it carries on its wings the conversation of the drum, then you may have a sense of what this writer experienced during his annual trek to the Festival.

Opening the festival on the main stage was the African-born singer Angelique Kidjo, whose lyrics reflect her belief that no matter how far the children of Africa have been removed from their Mother Land, subtle lines of interconnectedness continue to unite us. She inspired the crowd in a lyrical testament of hope, singing in English and her native tongue, Yoruba with songs from her latest release “Oyaya” (the word for “joy” in Yoruba).

Other acts of note included jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, whose lack of exposure may explain why he normally is not considered one of the giants of jazz. Still, when he performs in his favorite setting—the piano trio format—his colleagues in the industry and jazz lovers alike agree that he is not only at his best—but is one of the best.

Now well into his 70’s, Jamal can still tickle the ivories blending his classical training with the swing of a real jazz pianist. Old timers who attended the concert almost looked misty eyed, perhaps recalling earlier days of jazz when during the late 1950’s, Jamal solidified his Jamal Trio lineup and performed regularly at the old Pershing Hotel attracting local jazz musicians. It was a treat to witness the performance of a man whose reach extended to one of the greatest improvisers in jazz history—Miles Davis.

Representing the sound of Latin jazz was the family known as Escovedo with father, Pete, joined by his daughter and one-time percussionist for Prince, Sheila E.

Escovedo is considered one of the leaders of Latin jazz and got his big break when he and his band were asked to open for the Count Basie Orchestra at the Downbeat Club in San Francisco. And while he is comfortable on saxophone or the vibes, he is best known for his skills as a percussionist—something that he clearly passed on to his entire family, including his brother, the late Coke Escovedo and to daughter Sheila E.—one of only a few female percussionists in a tradition that continues to be heavily dominated by men.

A sort of Family Von Trapp minus the vocals (sorry, I couldn’t help but throw in that shout out to The Sound of Music) the Escovedo family had bongos, congas, cymbals, bells, shells and all kinds of percussion work going on a stage that got hotter by the moment and kept the audience on its feet.

The Festival closing act was none other than the legendary songstress/pianist, Roberta Flack who never disappoints an audience. She came on later than scheduled, perhaps because she was hampered by a broken foot.

She started out just a tad flat on “Oasis,” as she fought to find her voice on a humid night. But from that point on it was all classic Roberta.

Flack is a trained musician and one thing that is always evident—she carefully selects the artists that back her up. Her performance at this year’s festival was another stellar combination of vocals and musicians with a skilled band and the terrific tenor Tony Terry.

I have had the opportunity to cover Flack several times and have to say that she and Terry sounded most like that classic combination of Flack and Hathaway whose performance on “The Closer I Get to You”—remains one of my all-time favorites. Flack hasn’t released a new recording since a 2003 Christmas release and so it a pleasant surprise to hear several new pieces that she said will be included in a new CD that’s due out before the end of the year.

From “Feel Like Making Love,” and “Killing Me Softly,” to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “Back Together Again,” which featured Terry as the lead vocalist, it was a great close to a fantastic festival.

But as is the case of most divas, like Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, Flack is at her best when she’s indoors where the acoustics are better and she doesn’t have to fight the elements.